Sustainable AND Scaleable?

December 16th, 2008 by Tim Maly

Dan Barber’s story (embedded above) is one of my favourite kinds of stories. He begins with something that seems unethical, tells the story of an unlikely maverick who challenges the status quo and wins (a contest). All the while, it turns out that our maverick’s approach involves some down home ingenuity and hands on sustainability. In the end, it turns out that we get to have our cake and eat it to. There is a method for producing foie gras ethically that’s also sustainable (AND DELICIOUS). (If only we didn’t have those evil unsustainable, unethical factory farms that gave us slightly inferior foie gras (and strawberries and mangoes and whatever) year-round.)

At about 8:15 in, Barber unwittingly raises the first issue that will cause massive problems for this kind of farming. He approvingly mentions that the farmer is taking a loss on feeding these geese figs and olives. “The doubly irony is that on the figs and olives, Eduardo could make more money selling those than he can on the foie gras.”

At which point the economist in me asks, “then why does he bother with the foie gras?”

Eduardo is an artisan farmer, he doesn’t need to be profit maximizing, just profitable. So if he wants to take some extra time and effort, he’s welcome to destroy value in the goods he produces as a kind of hobbyist craftsman. That’s fine for him, but does it work on a world-wide scale?

The reason that Eduardo could make more on the figs and olives than he does on the foie gras is that someone has figured out how to make the delicacy more cheaply. It’s far from ethical – it requires factory farming and force feeding – but when it comes to foie gras, people don’t seem to care.

The pricing of foie gras really doesn’t matter to most people, but the same story plays out over and over again in the world of farming. Factory farms produce food more cheaply, with less labour and at a higher density than most organic farms. They also produce the food people want year-round instead of seasonally. They do it at massive environmental and ethical cost, but until there is a price on these things, it is unlikely that entreating people to only eat what is in season will see a shift in the way food is produced.

There’s two ways this story can get better. Either factory food becomes more expensive or sustainable food becomes cheaper.

Eliminating the massive subsidies paid to factory farmers would be a big step in doing both at once. If oil continues to climb, factory farm prices will tend to rise (a lot of oil goes into the machinery and pesticides used on larger farms) making less oil-dependent farming more viable.

The labour issue is a bigger one, which must be solved either by automating organic farming practices, killing western subsidies which will make farming profitable for developing countries (they have a surplus of labour, but ultra cheap grain and dairy from subsidized OECD farmers often forces them out of business), or convincing more OECD citizens to go back to the land.

The last question, to which I don’t know the answer, is: Will organic farming produce enough food to feed everyone? The technologies that underlie the Green Revolution allowed the human population to triple in less than 70 years with very few major famines. Advocates of alternative farming need to account for whether their methods will sustain the human population (or who should die).

They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.

Norman Borlaug

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